Music-lovers wanting to hear the performer who was arguably Atlanta’s best and most renowned singer/songwriter in the 1980s used to go to…nowhere.
Actually, it was nowhere spelled (almost) backward – Erewhon – where Cy Timmons mesmerized a rapt audience visiting his midtown nightclub specifically to hear his music and repartee. Customers didn’t go there to converse; they went to Café Erewhon to listen, and a dropped pin could be audible. And guys took their dates there for Timmons’ help in setting a romantic tone for the evening.
He’s still creating that musical atmosphere, but his listeners now must find it and him in the North Carolina mountains, where Timmons performs weekends at The Hummingbird Lounge at Old Edwards Inn in downtown Highlands. “I remember you from Erewhon!” he says he frequently hears from Old Edwards’ guests and Highlands visitors delighted to discover and reconnect with the performer who enriched entertainment and love lives in Atlanta.
He still plays mostly love songs on his well-worn classical guitar in jazzy, bossa nova style, sings with a smooth, rich voice and controlled vibrato and creates the extra sounds for which he’s known with his mouth and rhythmic right hand. Erewhon regulars entering The Hummingbird Lounge with their eyes closed would still know immediately who they’re hearing again.
Timmons has made his music in the mountains the past 30 years, but his storied career began in Atlanta. His mother sang with her sister and enhanced her church choir, and his father owned a steel-string Gibson guitar “that I never saw him play.” But their son, who had an older sister who could read music and two younger brothers who he says were also good musicians but chose different careers, sang second bass in mixed choirs at North Fulton High School and became interested in his dad’s unused guitar “that was perfect for rock ‘n roll” at age 16. Then his father gave him an electric guitar for his 17th birthday, but that wasn’t his ideal instrument, either.
One of Atlanta’s legendary performers reveals that what led him down the musical path he followed for his entire career as a professional musician was hearing “Girl from Ipanema.” “I liked the same style” as Jose Feliciano and decided “that’s the sound I want,” leading Timmons to get his first classical (nylon string) guitar.
“My folks played music 24 hours a day,” Timmons says, with his mother constantly playing records and the radio. “I assimilated great songs,” he adds, from jazz to bossa nova. “I knew great jazz songs and standards, but I couldn’t play them yet.”
He says Mel Torme was “the No. 1 person I listened to, along with some Tony Bennett and Vic Damone, and I liked some of Sinatra’s songs.” Another primary influence “during the bossa nova craze” was Antonio Carlos Jobim, “who wrote half the bossa nova songs that were famous.”
Never one to “cover” other musicians’ famous songs literally, he developed his own style, adapting arrangements in his own unique way with more complex jazz chords, which he continues to this day.
“I wanted to play a song the way I felt like I should play it,” Timmons says.
His diverse repertoire was drawn from across the spectrum, from jazz to standards and newer popular music. “Everybody had at least one song” he’d want to stylize in his own way. “I used to know about 1,200.”
After attending Alabama College, renamed the University of Montevallo in Alabama, Timmons began his career playing “one-nighters and private parties” before landing a job in 1967 at The Chalet in Atlanta, where he started out with a repertoire of just more than 30 soft love songs. He laughs when he remembers Chalet management asking if he could “play something a little more zippy,” so he merely boosted the tempo of 4-5 songs he already knew.
“Other people were playing loud, rocky songs with good rhythm,” Timmons notes; “I played love songs” he says of the niche he chose.
He was at the right place at the right time, because Bob Shane, an original member of the Kingston Trio, married an equestrian from Atlanta and raised horses at Kingston Farm in Roswell. Bob and Louise Shane caught Timmons’ act during his year at The Chalet, advised him to seek greater opportunities in California, let him stay in their condo in Mill Valley, Calif., and “introduced me around and got me my first job” in Sausalito, near San Francisco.
Perhaps equally influential was his discovery of a Kohno classical guitar in Shane’s condo closet. “The Kingston Trio played steel-string guitars,” Timmons explains; “that was their sound. Bob liked the guitar, but he didn’t love it, so he told me to give him my guitar and some money,” and the relationship between man and instrument that has continued for decades began.
New Kohno guitars are quite expensive, but more than 50 years of preferring the same instrument has both mellowed the guitar’s sound and worn its body to the point where most people wouldn’t understand its worth. There’s even an extra small hole on its body near the sound hole, made from the percussive sounds Timmons often adds between finger-picking notes as he moves up and down the neck of the guitar effortlessly, rarely looking at frets to see where he is.
Timmons played near San Francisco for about three years, performing on the streets near Ghirardelli Square in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco at nights when he was between paid performances at the Purple Onion and other venues. “Millions of performers played in the daytime,” he recalls, “but I was usually the only musician playing at night.”
He remained in California for almost five years, venturing sometimes from San Francisco to Los Angeles because “friends moved to LA, and it was probably a better place to be.” And his time out West benefited Timmons’ career significantly, beyond finding his favorite guitar.
For one, he performed at a venue down the street from where the late Al Jarreau was playing and heard the scat and other sounds Jarreau created vocally. Timmons says he had been an avid watcher of the Ed Sullivan Show growing up and had noticed the additional non-singing sounds that performers on Sullivan’s show made through their mouths to add to their music.
“I met Al Jarreau in Sausalito, and he and I both loved jazz and bossa nova,” he says, “and Al made flute sounds. I thought: ‘I could do that,’ and add sounds without having to add another musician.”
Timmons also created percussive and trombone sounds with his mouth. He adds that he “could do oboe if I had to” but says the sound of an oboe would rarely be compatible with his repertoire.
In California, Timmons also began performing occasionally with percussionists, a musical supplement that he sometimes included later in his career as well.
He opened shows for Jarreau, David Steinberg, Peter Nero and Joan Rivers and improved as a guitarist in collaboration with several teachers. “I was learning to read music,” Timmons says, but he didn’t find that study particularly enjoyable or useful and “played well enough to work in clubs. My guitar teachers and I experimented with different things.”
While in San Francisco, he also focused on his voice with several years of help from well-known vocal coach Judy Davis, whom he remembers in his original song “Judy.”
“Her concept was ‘I don’t teach you how to sing; I teach you how to save your voice for a lifetime,’ ” and Timmons still uses the vocal exercises that Davis taught him to maintain his voice in his 70s.
He recalls that Davis declined requests for her to sing on nighttime television shows, countering that “my students speak for me.” “She gave me confidence and made me realize how good I was, and after two years said ‘you’re ready to go.’ ” Davis and her student remained close for the rest of her life, and he says that working with the famed vocal coach and friend was the most memorable experience of his career.
“I was tired of L.A.” after half a decade in California, he says. “Everybody wanted to be a star, and it was a hard life.”
He moved back to Atlanta in 1973 and played for a year in a quartet at Coach & Six with the Dick Drew Trio, an unusual side trip into band work. He was trying to find his bearings as a musician and wrote “The World’s Greatest Unknown” and other songs during that period of uncertainty.
But Timmons found his niche and became a prominent Atlanta solo artist in 1974-1975 at The Tree on Peachtree, where one night he noticed that Atlanta Symphony Orchestra percussionist James Cunningham was listening to his sound at various locations around the room.
Between songs, Cunningham approached Timmons and inquired about accompanying him on percussion. Timmons was receptive and asked Cunningham if he had congas in his car. He didn’t, but Cunningham returned from the restaurant’s kitchen with two sauce pans he placed between his knees to make music, “and the place went wild. He was a great showman, too.”
When the Wits End Cabaret Theatre moved from its home venue on Fifth Street near Spring Street to Underground Atlanta, Timmons and a partner decided to lease the building near the Biltmore Hotel and open Café Erewhon in 1976. “We ran one full-page ad in Creative Loafing, and immediately there was a line out the door,” he recalls. “I was taken aback” at the overwhelming response, and he performed at his own club for 11 years – often with Cunningham continuing to join him on weekends when the ASO wasn’t performing.
Café Erewhon was specifically a performance venue, with seating placed to feature the performers. Regulars remember the starry constellation on the wall behind Timmons and the sole white spotlight illuminating the musicians.
The Erewhon name is related to Timmons’ original song “Nowhere,” with the spelling influenced by his concurrent reading of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writing also inspired the original song “Bilbo.” He muses that “Bilbo” might be appropriate accompaniment for a rumored new film based on Tolkien’s stories.
Besides Cunningham, other percussionists who accompanied Timmons later at Café Erewhon were Terry Smith, “who is phenomenal” and established the beat for the Paul Mitchell Trio for decades, as well as Larry Jones, an Atlanta performer who changed his name to Count Matumba and recorded with well-known entertainers in that era.
But with the exception of Timmons’ first of four self-produced records – “Cy Timmons” (1972), recorded with a band, and some of the music on his Christmas album – all of his original music has been recorded with solo guitar. “When you play with a band, things get dated with the sound,” he explains, while “recording with a guitar and voice is simple and timeless.”
Most of his songwriting was early in Timmons’ career. “The World’s Greatest Unknown” was released in 1974, followed by “Heaven’s Gate” in 1998 and “A Cy Timmons Christmas,” created in 2001 and including several original compositions mostly to give to family and friends. With the exception of his stylized arrangement of some familiar seasonal songs on the Christmas album, his recorded music is all original.
He didn’t make many copies of his recordings, and they can be difficult to find. Amazon doesn’t have any of Timmons’ recordings, but demand for his music is evident on websites that offer the few used recordings that remain available in the United States, with album prices on eBay ranging from $112.49 to $199.99 and $125 on etsy.
But Shu Ikeuchi of Bright Size Records in Japan discovered “The World’s Greatest Unknown” and contacted Timmons several years ago wanting to reproduce the “Greatest Unknown” and “Heaven’s Gate” LP recordings. To finally convince Timmons to allow the reproduction of those albums, Ikeuchi “said he’d ‘fly to America and I will be your best fan,’ ” the singer remembers, and about 1,000 vinyl recordings—500 of each album—were pressed using dynamic-enhancing half-speed reproduction technology at Abbey Road Studios.
Brightsizerec.com no longer has any of the vinyl reproductions available, but copies could still be found in late July through reputable London record shop Honest Jons (https://honestjons.com/shop/search/Cy_Timmons) at 32 pounds ($43.87 U.S. then) each, with free shipping when spending more than 50 pounds.
Timmons had met his wife of more than 30 years, Carolyn, at The Tree when both were in relationships, but they remained friends over the years. Both eventually were unattached, their friendship blossomed into romance, and in 1985 Timmons bought a cabin on 15 acres with a stream in Scaly Mountain, N.C., for getaways.
“After 11 years, things changed” in the area around Café Erewhon, and Timmons says Georgia Tech eventually bought the two-block area where the performance venue had been. “One day we decided that Atlanta was too big,” so the Timmons married in 1989 and moved to Scaly Mountain permanently in 1993.
Carolyn Timmons retired after 30 years as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines and began studying to become a paralegal. Her husband became the “house band” at Market Basket restaurant in Cashiers for 11 years and then added a second career.
“I always liked houses and land, and I had renovated a few houses in Brookhaven,” he says, so selling real estate “was natural and gave me something to do in the daytime.” The multi-million-dollar sales producer who is a broker for Pat Allen Realty Group in Highlands has had a real estate license for about 15 years that allows him to work in both North Carolina and Georgia, where the state line is about a mile from his home.
His performance focus moved closer to home in Highlands, where for several years Timmons played at venues including Helen’s Barn and Highlands Cove, which his current music employer bought and renamed Old Edwards Club at Highlands Cove. He has been the prime-time performer at The Hummingbird Lounge at Old Edwards Inn for nearly a decade, entertaining audiences from 8-10 p.m. most Fridays and Saturdays (a call or email to Old Edwards can ensure that he won’t be on a rare vacation when fans from outside the area decide to make the pilgrimage).
Timmons’ musical performance is ideally compatible with the plush, refined style of a fine gentlemen’s club in The Hummingbird Lounge, which has lamp lighting, a fireplace, wood paneling, paintings, couches and easy chairs like a welcoming living room in an upscale home. Lovers still cuddle and connect in the intimate setting, but seating is limited, so early arrival can ensure greater comfort.
“Any questions?” Timmons still frequently asks his audience after a song ends, and adding to his performance is the witty banter he shares with listeners between music and sips of the ubiquitous glass of red wine nearby.
And in a time when many “live” performances more closely resemble karaoke with pre-recorded or push-button instrumental accompaniment, what audiences hear is still pure Cy Timmons – every sound created (and risked) on the spot. He might not recall all of the thousand-plus cover and original songs he once played and gets fewer requests now for original music from audiences who don’t know him as well, but listeners audibly find him as entertaining as ever.
And he has no plans to confine his well-worn Kohno to its case anytime soon. He stopped playing tennis after 30 years, doesn’t practice the Tae Kwon Do that produced a karate black belt and now power-walks rather than jogs to stay in shape, but he doesn’t look, move or perform like most men who are nearly 80.
“I feel healthy and energetic,” Timmons says, “and I plan to keep it up. I still get to perform at least two nights a week, and I know that I have to sing and play guitar. There is a song in my head and my heart every day, all day, until I fall asleep.”
While fans can believe that he might well be “the world’s” (or at least the region’s) “greatest unknown,” he explains that he wasn’t suggesting that when he wrote the song about five decades ago.
“I wrote it when I was unknown to myself,” says Timmons. “But I’ve learned a lot in 50 years.”
(A half-dozen original songs, including two with Christmas themes, can be heard by searching for Cy Timmons on YouTube; 10 songs are at last.fm/music/Cy Timmons; “Sunny Times” can be found on soundcloud; and “Nowhere” is at www.cytimmons.com)